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Small-Business Market: No Dummies Here

What technologies do small-business owners think have the power to take their organizations to the next level?

Judith Henderson-Townsend, owner of Mannequin Madness, a mannequin recycling company, told Intel what she thought would help her business thrive and won a $100,000 technology upgrade in the process.

Intel, in partnership with the Small Business Technology Institute, sponsored The World of Difference contest in which the organizations asked small-business owners to write proposals about how they would incorporate technology into their businesses and how that would help them better grow their jobs.

In July 2005, more than 2,300 small businesses submitted proposals identifying how they would improve operations using technology.

Intel solution providers then were partnered with the top 53 projects, and the top five were asked to present their business plans to a group of Intel VARs at the World of Difference Learning and Development conference in New York in January.

Resellers judged the proposals on seven criteria: business considerations, lifestyle impact, proposed technical solution, functionality requirements and user scenarios, resource allocation/project management, existing systems infrastructure, and post-implementation activities.

The judges chose Henderson-Townsend&'s proposal of expanding Mannequin Madness using RFID technology to keep track of mannequins and sundry artificial body parts, and implementing Datex software to integrate front- and back-office systems.

Mannequin Madness is planning to move its headquarters from Oakland, Calif. to New York this year, bringing it closer to the fashion industry, as well as open regional offices in San Francisco and Las Vegas. In 2007, Henderson-Townsend hopes to open branches in Atlanta and Chicago.

“It&'s a niche business that has exploded, and now we need to take advantage of the opportunities,” Henderson-Townsend said. “Most people don&'t think about mannequins as something you recycle. Mannequins are just as important to recycle as anything else.”

She chose to work with Paul Tu of PC Club, a solution provider in City of Industry, Calif.

“The biggest benefit that PC Club can bring is certainly making sure we have the correct hardware—hardware that has the potential to grow with us. We want to make sure we can extend the life of this $100,000, and we want to make sure that we have the best value for our equipment. We don&'t need a $30,000 printer, just a nice reliable printer than has basic functionality so that we can spend the money somewhere else,” Henderson-Townsend said.

Tu&'s role in developing Henderson-Townsend&'s vision was providing the resources to fulfill her needs.

“I&'m the IT advisor. She comes up with the visions, I come up with the fill in the blanks,” Tu said. “I told her about RFID, and she started researching it. To me, this is awesome. This is a very unique opportunity for us to learn about a whole new business and to help the business grow and develop a healthy infrastructure.”

Intel awarded PC Club $50,000 in marketing development funds for partnering with the winning project.

The runner-up in the World of Difference contest was a project proposed to help enhance the technology infrastructure at the Birmingham Maple Clinic, an outpatient mental health clinic in Birmingham, Mich.

Lori Edelson, a therapist at the clinic, presented a plan to work with Qualitech, a solution provider in Bingham Farms, Mich., to utilize voice and video applications to help therapists communicate with patients and other health-care providers. HIPPA-compliance issues would be improved, she said, with a technology upgrade including an improved firewall and voice-recognition software to help therapists keep records and correctly fill out complicated insurance forms.

“It will enhance the way we conduct the business of therapy—with solid technology to support them, therapists&' hearts and minds can be focused where they need to be, on the problems of the people they help,” Edelson said.

The clinic has had a business relationship with Qualitech for five years, she said.

“Qualitech is starting to act as our therapist to encourage us to plan proactively,” she said.

Neither the runner-up nor the other three finalists received monetary awards, but several plan to pursue the technology projects that they researched and proposed during the competition.

Beth Sindaco, partner and owner of The Sindaco Law Firm in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., said that now that she has realized the benefits technology could bring to her six-person staff, she must complete the project.

“They won&'t let me back in the office if I don&'t,” she said.

Sindaco chose solution provider Cobalt Computers, Allentown, Pa., to help set up a network that allows her employees to work remotely while keeping data secure. Home offices allowed her to employ working parents while keeping costs for both the firm and the employee low, she said.

Incorporating technology into her business will be key to surviving as a law firm, Sindaco said.

“It&'s more than imperative. It drives the business—and particularly so in the legal profession [where] you can see the pendulum swinging if you read any of the [American Bar Association] magazine articles on technology and the law. Hesitancy to incorporate technology into the legal profession has become strictly the preview of the old cigar-chomping managing partner,” she said. “I realize having gone through the [contest application] process that I [must] do this if I want to succeed. If I want to continue [as is]—not even grow the business, [but just] survive.”

Julia Wood, CEO of finalist Litmus Design + Architecture, a Portland, Ore.-based architecture firm, said that while her firm did not receive the $100,000 prize, pursuing technology enhancements was critical to her business.

“We have to innovate to stay alive. We&'re getting cut out of the marketplace, so we have to become more competitive, and the only way to become more competitive is to become more technologically savvy,” Wood said.

The firm plans to purchase software and hardware from Portland-based solution provider Computer Technology Link to run sophisticated design and modeling software to create buildings as well as to present projects to clients.

Another finalist, Midsouth Produce, Grenada, Miss., was planning to work with Howard Computers and Electronics on a project to track inventory as it expanded to a second location in Jackson, Miss.

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